Seth Tibbott, Hero of Compassion

We are thrilled to continue Heroes of Compassion, where we recognize people who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to help animals and make the world a more compassionate place.

seth and gene2

Gene Baur and Seth Tibbott

Today we honor Seth Tibbott, founder of Turtle Island Foods, makers of the amazing line of Tofurky products! Since founding Turtle Island in 1980, it is certain that Seth has touched the lives of just about everyone reading this post. For example, when I first discovered Tofurky slices, I immediately emailed another friend and said, “Stop whatever you are doing, go to the co-op, and buy these new Tofurky slices.” A half hour later, I received a response: “How do they do that??”!


Cultivating Compassionate Communities: What does the term “living compassionately” mean to you? 

When in Germany last year, an animal rights group gave me a bracelet that sums up compassionate living to me. In German it reads “Leben Und Leben Lassen,” which translates to “Live and Leave Living.” Life on this beautiful planet is all too short for all sentient beings, human and non-human alike. Anything we can do to live more compassionately and do less harm pays huge dividends to ourselves and the planet as well.

What inspired you to start down this path?

I stopped eating animals in 1972 after reading Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé. I was a teacher/naturalist at the time and her book pointed out to me the inefficiency of animal agriculture from an environmental perspective. The word vegan was not in popular use at the time and I started out as a vegetarian, flopping back and forth from vegetarian to vegan — which had been called a “pure vegetarian” diet for many years. When I later learned about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and of the cruelty inherent in the factory farm system, it felt like my decision was a win-win-win for myself, the animals, and the earth.

My flopping stopped when, thanks to Farm Sanctuary, I finally understood, in my heart, the sentience of farm animals — who just like you and I, only want to spend as much time as possible on this glorious earth, living in peace with our friends and family.

What was the transition like for you, and what did you learn that might be useful to people currently trying to make changes?

Some people, smarter than I, change from their meat- and dairy-based diet overnight to a vegan diet. I was not one of them. On the one hand, in 1972 there were no farm sanctuaries of any kind that I was aware of, nor animal advocacy groups beyond the ASPCA. PETA was founded, I believe, the same year I started making tempeh — in 1980. But even after that, when more and more information became available, it was still a gradual process. Even though I thought of my diet as “flexo-vegan,” eating a small amount of cheese and at some points even fish, it took many years before becoming totally vegan. Though I regret not becoming vegan sooner, I am glad to be vegan now and I know too much now to ever go back.

What has been most challenging and/or surprising about living a compassionate life?

Finding food is no problem, even while traveling the world and visiting strange places that you would not think of being vegan-oriented. I think it’s challenging sometimes interacting with friends and loved ones who are not vegan. I try and live by example without judgment, but sometimes struggle with feelings of separateness by eating a diet that is very different than the norm of many friends. That said, I recently went to a potluck hosted by some of my best friends and as it turned out, there was no meat at all there!

What advice / tips would you give to people who find it hard to cope with living in a world where the vast majority of people eat meat and so many farm animals are suffering and dying every day?

I am 65 now. I’ve been in business for 37 years with a front row seat, watching the world slowly begin to change its dietary course. While this change is more like an ocean liner gradually turning than a small sailboat tacking on a dime, the growth I have seen over my lifetime has been tremendous. In 1972 there were not only no meat alternatives in wide circulation, there was not even any granola on the shelves of the supermarket. Today, plant-based foods are a five billion dollar industry and growing fast. That’s basically growing from zero to billions in what is a blip in time. None of the great social causes changed fast enough and this change is no different, but this change IS happening. We are well on our way to seeing plant-based foods be the new norm.

How did you learn about Farm Sanctuary, and how did you get involved?

I first found out about Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt a Turkey Project in 1997, I think [see Tofurky Feast box below]. We had just launched the Tofurky Feast two years earlier, so it seemed like a good fit to support Gene and Lorri, who were just getting started. We devoted one panel of the box to this great program and gave a little money. Gene’s story of authentically growing Farm Sanctuary has paralleled, in many ways, our own approach to developing the Tofurky Company: slowly but surely, not selling out to anyone who would tell us what to support and what not to support. It’s an honor to be associated with the Farm Sanctuary today that is in full bloom and changing so many lives.

farm sanctuary tofurky box0

Has there been a specific animal who was special to you?

Well of course I love the turkeys, but honestly it is the pigs that I really like to hang out with the most. So cuddly but also so smart.

Do you have a favorite resident at one of the sanctuaries, and/or do you have a special affinity for a certain species of farm animal?

It was a great honor to meet my namesake, Tibbott the turkey [below] at Orland in 2013.


How do you think things will change over the next 50 years or so?

I think the protein market will be dominated by plant-based foods and possibly, if they develop in the right way, cultured meat grown without harming any animals. I doubt that all animal agriculture will disappear by then, but factory farms will be a shameful footnote in history and no one will understand how this generation ever accepted such institutionalized cruelty.

What is your favorite “main dish” recipe or meal? 

I love all products but keep going back to the Tofurky Roast with gravy and all the trimmings.

seth's plated roast0


Thanks to much for everything, Seth!

One Possible Future

With cruelty rampant on factory farms, and vegetarians currently a small minority, it is easy to dismiss the hope for a truly compassionate world. “My Uncle Dick hunts, and my cousin Jeb is always mocking me for being vegan. You’re crazy if you think they will ever change!”

These are legitimate concerns. However, it is nevertheless possible to achieve our goals – and much more quickly than we imagine.

Taking a longer perspective can help guide our advocacy. Society has advanced an incredible amount in just the last few centuries. Even though democracy was first proposed in ancient Greece, only during the eighteenth century did humanity see the hints of a democratic system. Only recently was slavery abolished in the industrialized world. It was not until the last century that child labor was ended in Europe and North America, child abuse was criminalized, and women were allowed to vote. Some minorities have attained more equal rights only in the last few decades or even the last few years.

It is hard to comprehend just how much society has changed in recent history. Prejudices we can hardly fathom today were completely accepted just decades ago. For example, if we read what was written and said about slavery – fewer than 150 years ago – the defenders were not just ignorant racists, but admired politicians, civic and religious leaders, and learned intellectuals. What is horrifying to us now was once not only accepted, but respected.

However slow our progress may feel, we are advancing at lightning speed compared to past social justice movements. A century ago, almost no animals received any protection whatsoever from abuse. Now, according to a Gallup poll, 96 percent of Americans want to see animals protected from abuse, and 32 percent believe that animals deserve “the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation.” Until 1990, only a single ballot initiative to protect animals that had passed at a state level – just one! Since 1990, animal advocates have passed dozens, including several directly abolishing some of the worst abuses on factory farms.

Not only do the vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals, many question eating animals, at least on some level. In 2011, Grist’s Tom Laskawy reviewed a survey from agribusiness front group Center for Food Integrity: “The study’s analysis notes that 51 percent strongly agree that they have ‘no problem’ eating meat and dairy. It’s still a majority, but the number is down a full 12 percent since 2007.” Consumers losing faith in Big Food.

Thus, the discussion now must focus on helping people see that eating meat violates their own principles. This effort is only just beginning. In the 1980s, most animal advocacy in the U.S. was focused on fur and vivisection, mostly ignoring the roughly 99 percent of animals who are butchered for food. Only relatively recently have more individuals and groups focused on this ninety-nine percent by exposing the cruelty of factory farms and promoting compassionate eating.

In large part because of this shift in advocacy, factory farms – which most people knew nothing about 10 or 20 years ago – are now considered by many to be ethical abominations to many. As noted in The Animal Activist’s Handbook:

Twenty years ago, few people had heard the word “vegan.” Finding mock meats and soymilk was nearly impossible. According to market research by Mintel, “Until the mid-1990s, change was slow in coming to the world of vegetarian foods, and many average consumers relegated ‘vegetarian products’ to a counter-cultural movement, not a mainstream trend.”

Today, even cousin Jeb doesn’t need “vegan” explained to him. You can find veggie burgers, soymilk, and various other convenience foods in most grocery stores. And plant-based meats, milks, and cheeses is a huge trend across the market.

As we continue our efforts, more plant-based products arrive on the market every month. Having convenient options available is vital, as it makes it easier for new people to try and, more importantly, to stick with a compassionate diet. As more people sample plant-based meats and other products, competition will continue to increase the supply and variety, improving quality and driving down prices. This cycle of growing numbers of vegetarians and the increasing convenience of vegetarian eating is self-reinforcing. Essentially, the technology of vegetarian meats and other foods is both driven by and a driver of moral progress.

If we continue to expand and refine our advocacy, the growth of compassionate eating will accelerate to a tipping point, where opposition to factory farms and the adoption of plant-based foods become the “norms” among influential groups. Legislation, as it usually does, will continue to follow these evolving norms, and we’ll see more of animal agriculture’s worst practices outlawed and abolished – something that has already begun. Corporate practices will also continue to adjust to the demands of an increasingly aware market.

At the same time, powerful economic forces will kick in, because ultimately, meat is inefficient. It is more efficient to eat plant foods directly, rather than feeding plant foods to animals and then eating some of the animals’ flesh. Of course, people aren’t going to substitute tofu for meat, but that is not the choice they’ll be making. Food science has advanced such that the best plant-based meats are able to satisfy even hardcore carnivores. Products including deli slices and strips from Tofurky, burgers from Beyond Meat, Gimme Lean sausage and ground beef, Gardein’s fish fillets, and many others clearly show that giving up meat is now not a deprivation.

The faster the growth in the number of people making compassionate choices, the faster plant-based meats will improve in taste, become cheaper, and be found in far more places. (Compare a 2016 Impossible Burger to a 2006 Boca Burger to a 1986 Nature Burger, and imagine how good a 2026 veggie burger will be!)

We are now challenged to expand the plant-based market by explaining to more meat eaters the reasons for choosing compassion, while exposing them to new – though similar – products. The more rapidly we do this, the sooner cruelty-free eating will be widespread.

After his first heart attack, Uncle Dick will shift over to plant-based meats that have no cholesterol or saturated or trans fats and are high in omega-3s. Cousin Jeb’s second wife – a vegetarian since seeing an online video in 2003 – will use that as an excuse to only cook meat-free meals, and Jeb will hardly notice the difference! Their daughter Barbara will grow up to oversee McDonald’s shift to non-animal chicken in their sandwiches.

Despite the current horror and continued suffering, if we take the long view and are willing to commit to the work that needs to be done, we should be deeply optimistic. Animal liberation can be the future. With our efforts, it could be achieved with a whimper, not a bang. Change will come not by revolution, but through person-by-person outreach progressing hand in hand with advances in technology, leading slowly but inexorably to a new norm that, to most people, hardly seems different. But an unfathomable amount of suffering will be prevented.

It is up to us to make this happen.

MattChicago2016-Matt Ball

Initial version published in 2006 as “A Roadmap to Animal Liberation,” also published in The Accidental Activist


It ain’t meat, babe: meat alternatives luring investors

From the meat industry journal, Meatingplace:

As research firms churned out New Year’s forecasts this year, one theme became apparent: Plant protein is in. Forget the war between vegetarians and meat eaters; today’s battle is for the omnivore’s plate and, increasingly, those who eat meat are looking to diversify their protein sources.

Plant-based meat alternatives (e.g. veggie burgers and meatless chicken strips) have been around for a long time, most of which started as boutique businesses that catered to vegetarians. Increasingly, however, mainstream large packaged food companies including Kellogg, Kraft, Pinnacle Foods and General Mills have bought into the market or developed their own brands and investors like Bill Gates have thrown big money at start-ups seeking to better mimic meat’s taste and mouth feel.

These products are not there yet: meat still tastes better. Even those promoting them admit that.

Still, all this money isn’t just going after the 5 percent of the population that identify as vegetarians. The Protein and the Plate research project, conducted last year by NPD Group, Midan Marketing and Meatingplace and sponsored by Yerecis Label, showed 70 percent of meat eaters substituting a non-meat protein in a meal at least once a week and 22 percent saying they are doing it more often than a year ago.

It will be up to meat processors to determine whether they can address with their own products the reasons consumers are looking for alternatives or choose to enter the market for these products themselves. Either way, it’s time to understand more about these protein players.


I’m going meat-free…How about you?

By Nick Cooney

April 3, 2012

“How I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say…You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs.”

If you’re familiar with the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration,” you can thank Frank Luntz. You can also thank him for the powerful quote above.

Luntz is a Republican Party consultant who conducts polling to see which words and phrases resonate with the public. Luntz popularized the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration” after polling showed they were more effective in promoting Republican ideals than the original terms “estate tax” and “oil drilling.”

Whether or not you agree with Luntz’s politics, his point rings true: language matters. When making the case for vegan eating, the words we use matter too. Some phrases appeal to meat eaters, and some phrases will be more likely to turn them off.

Case in point: a study by British trade magazine The Grocer found that the public was more likely to embrace vegetarian meat products when the products were labeled “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian.” Over the past four years an increasing number of British supermarkets and vegetarian meat producers have switched labels from “vegetarian” to “meat-free,” and as a result they are seeing increased sales among meat-eaters.

On this side of the Atlantic, vegetarian meat producers are catching on. Pick up a bag of Gardein vegetarian meat, and you’ll see the label “I’m meat-free!” Even Lightlife is catching on, labeling their products “meat-free” or noting they are packed with “veggie protein.” Virtually none of their products still carry a prominent “vegetarian” label.

Why does “meat-free” seem to go over better than “vegetarian” with the general public? Industry experts think the term “vegetarian” has negative connotations for many people. Maybe some have had negative experiences with vegetarians. Perhaps, due to guilt, social norms, or other reasons, they simply look down on all things “vegetarian.” For those over 30 years old, the term might conjure up memories of a flavorless tofu burger they tried back in college.

(It’s possible that for those who are 21 and under, “vegetarian” does not have as negative a connotation. Higher percentages of those age groups consider themselves vegetarian, and they have grown up with a much tastier selection of vegetarian products.)

Using the word “vegetarian” also raises the sticky issue of self-identity. The public may see vegetarians as a distinct group of people quite different from the average American. Ditto for vegans. That’s why, when asked about my diet, I don’t say “I am a vegan” or “I am a vegetarian.” I say, “I don’t eat meat.”  I don’t want the people I’m speaking with to lump me into a box, as if who I am is determined by what I eat. More importantly, I don’t want them to think they need to take on a new identity – joining me in the box – in order to cut cruelty out of their diets.

For a funny parallel example, consider the following. Which of these statements sounds more palatable to you? “You should become a Canadian,” or “You should move to Canada.” The first statement focuses on identity, while the second focuses on action. The second statement is probably more palatable to most Americans.

The bottom line?

When we leave issues of self-identity off the table, we make it easier for our audience to hear our message.

When we use words that don’t have negative connotations in the minds of our audience, our audience will be more likely to listen.

At times “meat-free” can sound a bit awkward when you try to work it into conversation. But after learning what the research has to say on this issue, I’m planning to use “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian” whenever possible.

In other words, I’m going meat-free. How about you?


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